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The Case for Broadening the Strategy to Reform Civil Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher 
July 14, 2019

Three unpublicized meetings occurred in Washington in June. The focus at each was Rebecca Hunter, who until last January was the Human Resource Commissioner for the state of Tennessee. Hunter was there to discuss the state’s highly publicized success with civil service reform. She met with leaders of the National Academy of Public Administration, members of the Senior Executives Association and leaders of the President’s management team.

This may well be the first time senior federal officials have met with a state HR executive. The Tennessee story is important for the breadth of the reform and for its well documented success. Reform has been a win-win for state employees and for Tennessee residents.

Civil service reform has been debated endlessly in virtually every country, including Fiji. In the United States it started with Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and resulted in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Texas was the first state to abolish centralized civil service in 1985; since then dozens of states have instituted changes, from minor changes such as “modernized” job descriptions to blowing it up.

If there is a common thread running through the initiatives, it is that reformers were primarily concerned with anticipated negative employee reactions. The focus is on improving how public employees are hired and fired. States eliminated policies tied to seniority, switched to employment at will, changed the appeals process and implemented pay for performance. In follow-up studies, researchers studied employee reactions to the changes. A report from Indiana concluded, “The transition . . .was uneventful.” A report from Georgia found, “Employees are less enthusiastic and have a great deal of apprehension . . .”

The story in those states is very different than the experience in Tennessee. The difference is in the goals and the breadth of the reform. Tennessee’s strategy is strikingly similar to that prescribed in a long forgotten 1993 report, “Hard Truths / Tough Choices: An Agenda for State and Local Reform,” from the National Commission on the State and Local Public Service (the Winter Commission). The 26-member Commission heard from a long list of witnesses in six cities.

Re-reading that report highlights a central question that has largely been ignored in the research—Has reform resulted in improved government performance? As stated in the report’s opening:

“Yet there is a growing consensus among both citizens and public officials that state and local institutions of government need to drastically improve their capacity and performance if we are to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing economic and social systems. This report contains a series of proposals that taken together would constitute a significant change . . . from an encrusted and outmoded system of command and control and its rule-bound management that emphasizes constraints and process at the expense of mission and results.”

That of course reflected the situation 25 years ago. For reasons that are buried in history, reform efforts have largely ignored the Winter Commission’s recommendations—and have been disappointing.

Reform is Now Essential

In the decade since the Great Recession, the workforce and financial reality at all levels of government have deteriorated. Early this year that prompted the National Association of State Chief Administrators to undertake a study with the results summarized in the report, “Job One: Reimagine Today’s State Government Workforce,” which argued, “That as the public and private sectors battle for talent, government is falling too far behind in preparing for the workforce of the future. . . .The really bad news? Across the board, states aren’t yet doing much beyond recognizing these challenges.”

The study’s core conclusion was stated in a side heading and the sentence that followed: IT’S TIME FOR BOLD ACTION: THE CASE FOR CHANGE

It’s time for significant change and modernization at every phase of the employment lifecycle—from recruitment, hiring and onboarding to training, development and retention.

That argument is reinforced in a recent two-part report from the National Association of Public Administration, “No Time To Wait, Building a Public Service for the 21st Century.” A panel of federal government management experts concluded, “There is no time to wait. The nation’s problems are too urgent. We need to build a human capital system that meets the needs of the nation’s 21st century government and we need to start now.”

Across the diversity of government agencies at all levels, the problems are largely the same: noncompetitive pay levels, an aging workforce and heavy retirements, fewer applicants and an increasing skills gap. With current unusually tight labor markets and in the absence of broad reform, the problems will get progressively worse.

Tennessee’s Reform Strategy

Tennessee’s goal in initiating reform was to build, “A top-notch workforce for the future.” Reform emerged from Governor Bill Haslam’s promise in his 2011 inauguration speech to undertake, “A top-to-bottom review to set priorities and establish measurable goals.”

Haslam asked the members of his Cabinet, including Hunter as the HR Commissioner, to determine if its services are, “Provided effectively and efficiently.” Each cabinet member reported something had to be done about the antiquated employment practices. HR had the lead with reform but it started as an executive initiative.

That is consistent with the first of the Winter recommendations to, “Strengthen executive authority.”

Another of the Winter recommendations was to, “Rebuild government’s human capital,” which is in line with Haslam’s goal of building a winning workforce. To do that Haslam supported Hunter in building what may be the strongest HR function in state government. HR’s accomplishments are posted each year as an annual report. The office has won a number of awards.

The state also made a major commitment to training and development, too often one of the first budget items to be cut. The state named the first Chief Learning Officer, Dr. Trish Holiday, to lead it. The CLO has also won awards. That is consistent with the Winter recommendation to, “Create a learning government.”

Central to reform in Tennessee was a commitment to move to goal-based management linked to pay-for-performance. The state invested three years in preparing managers for what is often a problematic transition. That is consistent with the Commission’s recommendation to, “Encourage a new type of public manager,” who relies on, “Coaching, benchmarking, listening, mentoring and championing,” employees.

Another of the Commission’s recommendations was, “Ending civil service paralysis.” However, the experience in other states confirms narrowly defined reform is not enough. For the Commission, civil service reform was one of several changes to, “Remove the barriers to high-performance government.”

Tennessee’s broader strategy is the right answer to address the workforce problems highlighted in the NASCA report. In Haslam’s two terms, each year hiring increased, salaries increased and participation in leadership programs increased. Today 94 percent of state employees feel aligned with their agency’s mission and values. The story should help other public employers.


Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected]

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